Required Reading: Books By Rappers

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Here at Flavorpill, we’re eagerly anticipating the release of Jay-Z’s memoir, Decoded, which comes out November 16th and promises to be, at the least, a lively read. But though Hova’s autobiography may be the most anticipated rapper-penned book of the year, it’s hardly the first one worth reading. From the RZA’s musings on philosophy and kung fu to Chuck D’s explanation of the racial politics of rap, there’s a surprising range of literary offerings from hip-hop stars. To tide you over for the next few weeks, we offer this curated bookshelf full of scintillating, intellectually stimulating, and just plain great books by rappers.

The Tao of Wu by The RZA

Part memoir, part compilation of kung-fu movie quotes, and part spiritual advice, The Tao of Wu is full of weird, interesting nuggets from the mythology of the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as an extended analysis of what wisdom means. There’s a story of the RZA rescuing Method Man from a haywire drug deal nestled in with chess tips and passages from scripture. It’s a fascinating document, and a look at the innards of the kind of hip-hop spirituality that the RZA has constructed through his albums and public statements.

The Way I Am by Eminem

Released in October 2009, before Eminem’s recent radio takeover, The Way I Am is a bit of a puff piece — full of thoughts on his lyrical prowess and breakdowns of his creative process, but lacking in the juicy personal gossip area. There’s nothing about his addiction to pills or his marriage to Kim, and it’s not particularly well structured. But it is surprisingly well written, and an interesting reflection on fame and the hazards of goofing around in the spotlight. (He actually apologizes for a number of things, including the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog incident.)

The 50th Law by 50 Cent and Robert Greene

When business writing guru Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power , teamed up with 50 Cent to write this guide to success, the reaction was disbelief followed by scorn. We’re not sure how successful it is as a business manual — the sole precept seems to be “Don’t Knock the Hustle” — but as a piece of pop culture, it’s pretty marvelous. And when you think about it, who better to dole out advice than someone who swore on his first album to Get Rich or Die Tryin’? Just don’t take any investment advice from him — we have a feeling that diamond grills don’t appreciate that well.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats by Grandmaster Flash and David Ritz

This is more of a beach read than a really in-depth look at the beginnings of hip-hop, but as an account of Grandmaster Flash’s life, it’s got some interesting tidbits. There’s his conflict with Sugar Hill Records and a breakdown of his techniques for getting the party jumpin’. There’s also the sad tale of his addiction to coke, and his fall from the top. You might not be quoting lines from this book anytime soon, but it’s a neat glimpse at the action in the Bronx at the beginning of the 1980s.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur

The idea of having your high school poetry published posthumously might be horrifying to most of us, but Tupac fans cherish this book of “before he was famous” verses. It includes 100 poems, of varying quality, that nonetheless show off Shakur’s considerable talent for language and rhythm. They’re not exactly Yeats — Shakur has a tendency to write in text message shorthand, which can be jarring — but when you read them you can almost hear the DJ behind him.

Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality by Chuck D, Yusuf Jah, and Spike Lee

Chuck D. has never been one to hide his political views — a stance that earned him the title “the Bob Dylan of Rap” from George Clinton — so it’s no surprise that his books is chock full of miniature manifestos and calls to action. Mixed in with his opinions on everything from public education to military spending are nuggets of his personal life and anecdotes from Public Enemy’s heyday. But the book, like Public Enemy itself, is intended as an educational project, which can get tiresome and didactic fast. It’s a fairly concentrated dose of Chuck D’s racial politics, and whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to deny that he’s consistent in his activism and thoughtful in his analysis of current issues… at least, more so than Kanye West.

The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a Fuck? by Ice-T and Heidi Sigmund

Consider this a warm-up for Ice-T’s autobiography, Ice-T: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption , which is hitting shelves this January. The Ice Opinion is pretty self-explanatory: basically it’s a collection of what Ice-T thinks about everything, from the LA riots in the 1990s to wine tasting. It’s a sort of long-form personal essay, lyrics included, that explains Ice-T’s political vision of the world, shaped by his time in South Central and the military.

The Gospel of Hip-Hop: The First Instrument by KRS-One

It’s no accident that KRS-One’s nickname is “The Teacha”: Aside from emcee-ing, he also dabbles in philosophy and anti-violent movements aimed to reduce gang fighting amongst teens. The Gospel of Hip-Hop is KRS-One’s philosophical treatise, modeled on the Bible. It fuses together actual biblical verse and KRS-One’s self-honed spiritualism, and the result is a kind of guide to living in a hip-hop world without falling into the cash-money mindset many rappers espouse. It sometimes verges on creepy — as when KRS-One posits himself as the messiah for his new rap Christianity — but as a hip-hop polemic rather than sacred text, it’s insightful.

The World According to Pretty Toney by Ghostface Killah

A satirical take on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People , The World According to Pretty Toney is Ghostface occupying one of his rap alter-egos to dole out terrible advice. It’s pretty short — more of a companion guide to the enclosed CD — but what’s in there makes us think that Ghostface should reconsider a career as a Colbert-style news host. Or at least write a longer humor book.